Among the panoply of struggles facing the Russian defense industry—the cost of the T-14 Armata, the engine in the Su-57 “Felon” fighter, the lack of markets for the Su-75 “Checkmate,” the seemingly doomed Admiral Kuznetsov—not much bad has been said of the S-70 “Okhotnik” (“Hunter”) heavy unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
The S-70 is a 20-ton, forty-six foot combat drone built with stealth features. It is designed to perform in a fully autonomous mode, as well as partnered with a Su-57. It relies on the Saturn AL-31F engine and can reach speeds of roughly 620 miles per hour with a combat range of 2,500 miles.
The drone can carry 4,400 pounds of munitions in two internal weapons bays, including guided missiles and guided and unguided bombs. It also features underwing hardpoints.
In its first successful test firing of precision-guided missiles, the UAV is suspected to have used Kh-59MK2 air-to-ground munitions with inertial guidance. These are stand-off, low altitude missiles with a 311-mile range and originally designed for the MiG-35, Su-32, and Su-35.
However, the biggest breakthroughs in what Russia considers to be a “paradigm-changing” drone will be the introduction of artificial intelligence into the control loop of the vehicle and the ability for up to four Okhotniks to partner with a manned Su-57 fighter. The latter feature, known colloquially as a “loyal wingman” role, has garnered much attention, especially since, theoretically, both stealth aircraft could slip behind radar unseen.
Moreover, the partnering of the Okhotnik with the Su-57 allows the Su-57 to extend the fighter’s radar field by flying in reconnaissance mode and feeding targeting data to the pilot. The S-70 can also fly in attack formation with the Su-57.
Thus, the Okhotnik can fulfill a range of functions that amplify attack capabilities while partnered with a fighter.
However, it is important to remember that the drone can be flown alone as well, functioning in much the same way as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone does when it evades anti-air systems and takes out those systems, opening up a pathway for additional air power. In addition to size and cost, the only real difference is that the Okhotnik is designed to operate with full autonomy if necessary.
Questions, however, surround the drone’s true level of stealth, as well as its ability to actually partner well with the Su-57. Indeed, the first prototype was remarkable for its lack of stealth features, including antenna, air inlets, and exhaust vents that would all make the drone less stealthy.
The second prototype, known as the S-70B, corrected many of these flaws, especially by installing a far-stealthier nozzle configuration. But the drone is yet to be paired with a fighter in a real combat situation. Additionally, at least one commentator has written that the supposed autonomous features look optimistic.
Moreover, the conflict in Ukraine has seen many Russian drones shot down, particularly the Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone. Without real combat testing, it is hard to know for certain how these UAVs will fare once serial production begins—or if it even begins. As with many other platforms in Russia, the effects of international sanctions may be severe in their denial of needed parts.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review